Tag Archives: John Heffernan

“Saint George and the Dragon” at the National Theatre

The always excellent John Heffernan takes the title role in Rory Mullarkey’s new play and gives a truly heroic performance. But can he save the day and the play? Almost… yet not quite, although it’s still a pleasure to see him on stage. Looking at our national legend at the nation’s theatre is a neat idea, as is writing the story as a contemporary allegory (in three chapters). Unfortunately, this brave effort delivers too little.

The opening act, set in a parodied mediaeval world, gets the show off to a great start. With Pythonesque touches, Heffernan makes the foppish George a figure to laugh at, while retaining just the right amount of dignity. His damsel in distress in updated effectively by Amaka Okafor, making their courtship a lark. As for the Dragon, Julian Bleach has a great deal of fun playing his earthly form, camping it up terrifically. It’s all staged slickly by director Lyndsey Turner, with Rae Smith’s design looking great. It’s silly but it’s funny, charming even, and very enjoyable.

After a year George returns to his island home, which has undergone an industrialisation that has enslaved its people. The Dragon isn’t a monster, but “every system needs a master” and, suited and booted, he is bureaucracy incarnate. It’s another great turn from Bleach and his now imprisoned former henchman, played by Richard Goulding, does well from the confines of a prison set. But this time the dénouement is thin and unconvincing; the Dragon too easily vanquished. It’s simplistic and too predictable.

To continue with a lack of surprises, after another year, George returns again – this time to a version of the present. Cue skyscrapers descending on to the stage in a This Is Spinal Tap moment that Smith has had enough experience to have avoided. And that’s the least of the problems with this unhappily ever after ending. The Dragon continues incorporeal – his evil inside us all – and there’s no place for saints, nowadays. Heffernan excels as a George out of time and perfectly reflects the play’s questioning of heroes and heroics. But this is slim stuff for a long play, as the repetition indicates, as well as being bleak and naive. Both Mullarkey and Turner lose control with an overblown finale that’s uncomfortably messy. And really just downright silly.

Until 2 December 2017

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

 

 

“Macbeth” at the Young Vic

Working with choreographer Lucy Guerin, director Carrie Cracknell has created a dance-infused version of Shakespeare’s play. This isn’t one for traditionalists but, remaining agnostic about how much the accomplished dancers really add, the production isn’t quite the love-it-or-loathe-it affair you might suspect. Cracknell’s focus on Macbeth’s internal turmoil creates its own coherent, if surreal, power.

Much of the credit is down to the startling design by Lizzie Clachan. Reminiscent of Allies & Morrison’s pedestrian tunnel at King’s Cross, the production has a consistently claustrophobic feel. Nightmares are the preoccupation and the witches (played by Anna Beatriz Meireles, Jessie Oshodi and Clemmie Sveaas) are creators of this nasty dream. Mannequin-like manipulators in a very literal sense, they lay the banqueting table and double as the children in the play.

The witches’ relationship to Macbeth is particularly intimate, toying with the idea that much of the action is in his mind and through his perspective. Appearing as pregnant on some occasions, the witches hint at trouble in the Macbeth marriage and highlight his preoccupation with Banquo’s progeny. Tellingly, it is Macbeth’s own voice that delivers prophecies when he visits them for the last time.

This is a Macbeth about personality rather than politics – despite the gruesome Abu Ghraib aesthetic employed – and there are sacrifices made because of this. Anna Maxwell Martin’s Lady Macbeth suffers most, her role feeling truncated and leaving little impact. For all the ghosts and ghouls, Macbeth’s hallucinations feel distant from the supernatural, making his a modern nervous breakdown of unsettling intensity.

Relying so much on the lead actor, Cracknell is fortunate to have cast a performer as talented as John Heffernan. Taking the strange musical interludes in his stride, Heffernan anchors us in the text and sounds simply wonderful. Few can speak Shakespeare as effectively and Heffernan alone makes the show worth watching. But with one important warning – appreciating what Cracknell is doing needs a strong knowledge of the text. Even with a work as famous as this, it means the production isn’t for everyone.

Until 23 January 2016

www.youngvic.org

“Oppenheimer” at the Vaudeville Theatre

The RSC’s transfer of Tom Morton-Smith’s new play immerses us in the history of the first atomic bomb and the mind of its maker, J Robert Oppenheimer. It’s a story with overwhelming potential – a rich mix of documentary and speculation – and the play is fascinating, if over ambitious. Angus Jackson’s direction deserves credit for inventive staging that aids dryer moments, using Robert Innes Hopkins design, and an impressive injection of music from Grant Olding.

Overall, strong performances balance some over enthusiastic accents – émigré scientists drafted onto the project to build the bomb prove too much of a temptation – so acting that benefits the script sits alongside some delivery that’s tricky to comprehend. The women in the piece stand out, both Hedydd Dylan and Catherine Steadman, as Oppenheimer’s love interests, do well with roles that come perilously close to tokenistic.

There are passages of writing that make it clear how talented Morton-Smith is. But he seems in thrall to history and detail, so the play ends up too long. Are this many characters really needed to explain the allegation that Oppenheimer turned his back on friends and ideals to win fame? And difficult though the science is, I’ve seen better attempts at explaining complex theories on stage. The biggest problem is knowing where to end the story: the bombs’ impact on all our lives might be a whole other play – tacking it on to this one doesn’t do the phenomena justice.

Nor does Morton-Smith make it easy for his leading character. Oppenheimer is a man of iron, cold and remote, yet forced to reveal enough trauma for any lifetime. His affairs, childhood, politics and philosophy are all tackled and none of it is simple. All the more credit, then, to John Heffernan in the title role. Seldom have I seen a show rest so heavily on its leading man. Heffernan’s performance confirms his status as one of the finest actors around – conveying the complexity of the physicist, making all that history and politics seem manageable and even convincing us of his character’s particular charisma. A stunning performance that gives this show enough bang to counter the occasional whimper.

Until 23 May 2015

www.rsc.org.uk

Photo by Keith Pattison

“Edward II” at the National Theatre

Director Joe Hill-Gibbins made his debut at the National Theatre last night with a radical version of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II. He’s the King whose murder with a red hot poker makes him the medieval monarch schoolboys remember. This crazy collage of show revels in incongruous touches, using our current National anthem and the hokey cokey in its soundtrack, and wrenches the personal from an explicitly political text. Best of all, it boasts a lead performance from John Heffernan that must not be missed.

Hill-Gibbins’ inventive staging is bracing – a bag of tricks that updates Marlowe with a defiantly energetic touch. Projecting live films onto the walls, including scenes in an inside-out room (reminiscent of a Rachel Whiteread sculpture) that the audience cannot see into, gives a sense of intimacy and conspiracy. There are touches that will ruffle feathers – brash, bold and sexy – including the longest snog I’ve seen on a stage for a while. But the production is never obtuse; the court and its conflicts are consistently presented as a game played by debauched egoists.

The “base, leaden Earls” are deliberately overblown, outraged by the explicitness of Edward’s love for his minion Gaveston rather than questions of social status. Two roles, transformed into female parts, stand out, with Kirsty Bushell as Kent and Penny Layden as Pembroke, displaying sympathy toward the King that injects pathos. The biggest problem is for Edward’s wife Isabella. Vanessa Kirby proclaims her love for the King, between drags of her fag and swigs of bolly, well enough, but the production focuses so much on Edward’s homosexuality that it denies tension between the two of them.

Jpeg 8 - NTedward
Kyle Soller

Gaveston, the “ruin of the realm”, is performed by Kyle Soller with magnificent dynamism – when he kneels to the King it’s as if he’s about to start a race. In Soller’s performance the morbid playfulness of the production genuinely unnerves. But the suffering is all Edward’s and the scenes of his torture, filmed and projected throughout the final act, makes this a gruelling role that establishes Heffernan as an important actor. Despite the manic action around him, Heffernan has the power to create a stillness and deliver Marlowe’s poetry magnificently.

Until 26 October 2013

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Manuel Harlan

Written 5 September 2013 for The London Magazine

“She stoops to conquer” at the National Theatre

Any production of a comedy at the National Theatre is likely to be compared to the venue’s most recent success, One Man, Two Guvnors. As Richard Bean’s updating of Goldoni’s play moves to Broadway, and opens with a new cast in the West End, the National’s newest attempt to make us merry is a traditional version of another 18th-century classic, Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer. Remarkably, the National has succeeded again – this is a delightful production with guaranteed belly laughs.

Our hero Marlow is sent to visit his prospective bride Kate, played commendably by Harry Hadden-Paton and Katherine Kelly. But while Marlow can banter with barmaids he is impotent when flirting with women of his own class. A practical joke by Kate’s half-brother Tony Lumpkin (a superb comic creation in the hands of David Fynn) leads Marlow to believe the home of his future father-in-law is the local inn. Exploiting the confusion, Kate joins in the deception, bawdily stooping in class to conquer her diffident suitor.

SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER by Goldsmith
Sophie Thompson as Mrs Hardscastle

Another pair of lovers, Constance (the appealing Cush Jumbo) and Hastings, joins the fun, planning to elope under the nose of the former’s guardian, the pretentious and avaricious Mrs Hardcastle. Sophie Thompson is superb in the role, her deliciously exaggerated performance making her one of the most endearing characters of the piece. But it’s John Heffernan as the foppish Hastings who takes the evening’s comic laurels delivering a master class in buffoonery and raillery.

It’s a relief that director Jamie Lloyd doesn’t try anything tricksy with the play. She stoops to conquer is “old-fashioned trumpery” that doesn’t need a modern take. Lloyd has the confidence to play it straight, knowing he just has to control the action, and the laughs will follow. Mark Thompson’s design provides the doors to slam – the text doesn’t really call for them but they add a reassuringly farcical touch. And the music – all pots and pans and trolololing, provided by Ben & Max Ringham, directed and arranged by David Shrubsole, adds immeasurably to the production. You have to see the ensemble perform it to believe how funny it is – that’s if you can hear it above the laughter.

Until 28 March 2012

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 1 February 2012 for The London Magazine

“After the Dance” at the National Theatre

The National Theatre’s contribution to the Terence Rattigan centenary celebrations is one of his least known plays, After the Dance. This provides a provocative insight into the Bright Young Things – that post-WWI, Bohemian generation – and in particular what happens to them in later life. Set in 1938, the play’s serious-minded youngsters observe their elders with disdain. This new generation thinks the party should have ended long ago and, with a new war looming, it becomes clear that any dance now is likely to be a macabre one.

The Scott-Fowlers are a wealthy and glamorous couple, still on the party scene and seemingly enjoying themselves. Reaching for the gin with improbable frequency, even more impossibly they retain their wit. They may not be young but they are still bright and a great source of comedy. Benedict Cumberbatch and Nancy Carroll portray this sophistication perfectly – they positively sparkle.

The Scott-Fowlers are joined by their ‘court jester’ John Reid, played by National Theatre stalwart Adrian Scarborough, who (as usual) manages to steal any scene he is in. We also get to meet their friends, including a cameo from Pandora Colin that is worth the price of a ticket alone. Her character’s vague distaste of her Bloomsbury days now that times have moved on is not only hilarious but reveals the dichotomy this group lives with – obsessed with the past, they are also slaves to fashion.

John Heffernan and Faye Castelow
John Heffernan and Faye Castelow

Aloof to it all, David Scott-Fowler’s cousin and young secretary, Peter, is played superbly by the always impressive John Heffernan. While intrigued with the glamorous life he isn’t ashamed of being the “bore” his elders live in fear of being described as. His fiancée Helen also sees that the pretence of being continually interesting is exhausting, but is in love with the older David and young enough to try to change him. Faye Castelow gives this pursuit an almost sinister edge and shows how Helen fails to recognise the depth of character she lectures about is actually already present. Given the chance to show their characters’ deeper side, Cumberbatch and Carroll excel once again.

There is no doubt that this is a revival to cherish. Rattigan’s masterfully crafted script is directed with characteristic clarity by Thea Sharrock. The production values are as high as we might expect from the National Theatre, with a stylish set from Hildegard Bechtler and breathtaking costumes. Any reference to contemporary events and the economic boom of recent history are (perhaps thankfully) avoided. Entertaining and interesting, impeccably performed and produced, this is the perfect period piece.

Until 11 August 2010

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 9 June 2010 for The London Magazine